A lot more ink has been spilled on Zhou Qi than most players who are projected to go in the late in the first round or beyond. And for good reason, first there is his age issue which I went through in detail here. (My general conclusion is that though we obviously can’t rule anything out, I generally came out more relieved than worried after putting all the information I can find together.)
Then there is also the fact that it’s not hard to see a path where he is REALLY good; he is historically long but mobile and blocks shots at an absurd rate in a league that features plenty of ex-NBA bigs – showing not just physical advantage but often great skill as well.
Kevin Pelton’s statistical translation actually had him first (!) in terms of statistical translation this year (assuming age 20).
(An example of the amazing things Zhou can do: here a guard isolates against him, fakes a drive and then steps back the other way, then gets completely blocked. Not only that, but Zhou stayed balanced in the play and took the ball all the way for a dunk.)
To top this all off, he flashes a lot of skill on the offensive end, even though he hasn’t really put up huge scoring numbers as a pro (but he’s really efficient) and his game is closer to a perimeter player than a traditional big, leaving a lot of room for imagination. Maybe he’s Porzingis with better defense? Gobert with better offense? Certainly it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.
This article will be my general thoughts on him after going through a lot of his full games (both in FIBA and the CBA), what I think of him now and what he will need to do to be a NBA player.
1. The most interesting thing I came away with may be that he feels so inconsistent on both ends of the floor for someone with that sort of production. I guess that’s what Mike Schmidt was referring to when he questioned Zhou’s feel for the game in the Draft Express videos. I’m not sure if that’s the issue but that’s certainly one way to look at it.
He can look incredible in blocking shots and generally make everyone take floaters around him (though the floaters seem to go in at an alarmingly high rate). At the same time there are a lot of plays where I’m pretty sure he’s either out of position or the whole team is, resulting in him just having little chance to really contest drives.
Offensively, he looks like he’s just going through the motion most of the times setting weak screens and then passively roll to the rim but then he suddenly makes a few great plays.
The body language going up and down the floor is often not great, suggesting poor motor, but then he would have bursts where he outruns everyone and fills the lane like a gazelle as well.
2. the substituion pattern: he plays A LOT of consecutive minutes on Xingjiang – often playing the entire first and fourth quarter (partially because you can’t put both foreign players out there in the fourth). That might be a major factor in why he sometimes looks that way. A comparable player in the NBA would almost certainly not play that sort of pattern in the regular season.
3. As Rafael noted, the Xingjiang team doesn’t really run plays for him much. Only Liu Wei (a former teammate of Yao Ming) seemed to actually make an effort to pass to him. The foreign guards were gunners. Andray Blatche does pass well but prefers to look for weakside shooters.
Although the CBA is a very three-point happy league, the spacing still feels pretty bad most of the time in the halfcourt, partially because guys just don’t contest three-point shots hard (they especially don’t chase guys over screens).
I feel that a more competent NBA system would probably open up his offensive game more and playing him more limited minutes would hopefully help his effort level.
His passing, like most of his game, is a mixed bag. He often tries to hit back cuts when he gets the ball at the top of the key. The completion rate isn’t good but he isn’t missing by much either. A lot of it is balls just glancing off the hand type of miss.
The offensive aspect overall is actually fine; he’s got enough tools in the box that surely he can find some niche that works. He also has a lot of NBA tricks in the bag already. For a guy who isn’t very physical and likes to take jumpshots he drew a lot of fouls. That’s because he pulls a lot of tricks you’d see in the NBA; jumping into guys who he faked into the air, actively baiting contact on jumpers and even some rip through moves.
His floor on offense is pretty high, I feel. There’s a low ceiling there too but the odds of getting there is much lower.
The defense part is the real variable, where the ceiling seems to be defensive player of the year and the floor can be unplayable.
His technique on defense is often quite awful but he makes up for it with some ridiculous length and timing. When he tries to show up high in pick and rolls, it always looks hilarious and indecisive. His closeout technique is usually bad (but occasionally good.) There’s no reason he should get beat that easily by local guards and wings on closeouts. Guys get around him quite a bit. Part of this seems to be him just daring them to take a layup with him closing in from behind. It works a lot in the CBA but it’s unlikely to work well at the next level.
My general conclusion watching him is that he REALLY needs to get better coaching on defensive positioning in general. But then again, it’s hard to say that other CBA bigs are much better in that regard, though they usually play much more conservatively on defense. Zhou seems to be the only guy trying to play an aggressive NBA-style defense but fails horribly at it most of the time.
How much he can pick up in terms of defensive footwork is probably the greatest variable in his success. He needs to get stronger but the biggest issue feels like his inability to protect the ball effectively in traffic. In the halfcourt, it’s uncommon that he just gets bulldozed straight up, as he can leverage his height to either front guys or contest even when knocked back a bit.
Defensive rebounding is another major issue, though it’s again hard to assess because it’s not like other guys always box out well or crash the board that hard. Still, I really don’t like the way he rebounds. Only very rarely does he grab them with any authority, and he has a bad habit of just trying to tip the ball to a teammate when he obviously could just come down with it.
I think my conclusion is that he doesn’t seem to have been coached properly in doing big man stuff for some reason. (Although he was brought up as a guard/wing originally when he was very young, as one can obviously see in his offensive game, he has been uber tall since around 13-14 years old.) The only skill area that you really like is the shot blocking, where he shows some really special skill. Most notably, he almost always stays in balance and manages to keep the ball in play quite often.
That he’s still really productive while having all these flaws may be a good sign, I guess? The American players in the CBA tend to be roughly as productive as they were in the NCAA (but more experienced and developed than they were back then). It lacks the high end athletes but, on average, it’s kind of like NCAA with NBA rules.
To be a good NBA player, he would need very serious work on his defensive fundamentals to be sure. As he’s predicted to go in the later first by most mocks, that might bold well for him, as he’s more likely to be drafted by teams that have better track records in developing players and are more likely to be patient with him. It would also set a much more realistic expectation for him.